Acupuncture is most often used in treating pain relief, but it also is used by some doctors as a course of treatment for other conditions as well. It is thought that acupuncture restores the flow of energy (known as chi or qi) in the body, stimulates healing, promotes relaxation, and contributes to general wellbeing.
Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese medicine dating back in written history as early as 100 B.C. However, it is thought to have originated far before that time. Acupuncture continues to be practiced by traditional Chinese medicine specialists and is used by many modern Western doctors.
What is Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine in which practitioners insert very thin needles into specific acupuncture points of the body. The body is thought to have over 1000 acupuncture points, each of which provides certain benefits through acupuncture. Traditional Chinese medicine describes acupuncture as a way to stimulate the flow of energy or life force, known as qi (pronounced chi), through the meridians or pathways of the body.
In acupuncture, an acupuncturist will insert sterile, hair-thin, one-time-use needles in strategic acupuncture points around a patient’s body. These needles will be inserted at varying depths depending on the condition of the patient and which acupuncture points are being used. These needles will stay inserted for 30 minutes on average before being removed.
What Does Acupuncture Do?
In traditional Chinese medicine, the positive effects of acupuncture are thought to be due to helping reestablish the flow of energy (qi or chi) in the body along the pathways of the body.
Some Western medical practitioners believe that acupuncture works by stimulating nerves, muscles, and connective tissues to release endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. It is also thought that acupuncture influences the autonomic nervous system to release chemicals that can influence blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and calm the brain.
Acupuncture is used in general to help aid in pain relief or to help offer healing benefits to individuals experiencing certain conditions such as nausea, depression or anxiety, insomnia, and more.
After an acupuncture treatment, individuals may experience improved sleep, better mental clarity, improved digestion, and decreased stress. In addition, individuals may experience temporary relief from headaches or nausea, muscle or joint pain.
Acupuncture plays a critical role in women’s health, helping to stabilize and balance hormones. For this reason, acupuncture is often a part of hormone balancing protocols for endometriosis, PCOS, estrogen dominance and thyroid support.
Acupuncture also regulates the nervous system, helping to lower anxiety, stress and cortisol surges. For many patients at CentreSpringMD, acupuncture is key in helping with many anxiety- and stress based symptoms, including insomnia, repetitive thoughts, a racing heart, or general agitation.
Based on the premise of interconnected systems, acupuncture is regularly used as an integrative treatment in functional, holistic medicine. The entire Chinese medicine system of diagnosis and treatment fits neatly into integrative and functional models of medicine that are designed to get at the root of the issue and connect the dots between emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental health.
What Conditions can be Treated with Acupuncture?
Acupuncture is used as a treatment for several different conditions, including chronic pain, depression or anxiety, headaches, and more. However, it is also used in some cases to promote overall wellbeing.
Common uses for acupuncture include:
- Hormone balance
- Nausea, especially from chemotherapy or postoperative nausea
- Headaches or migraines
- Lower back pain
- Women’s wellness
- Neck pain
- Chronic pain
- Anxiety & depression
- Sinus congestion
- Digestive health
- Weight management
- Post-operative dental pain
How Acupuncture Works
In Chinese medicine, the idea of how acupuncture works is based on a belief that disease is caused by disruptions to the flow of energy, or qi, in the body. The body is thought to have over 1,000 acupuncture points on and under the skin. By inserting a thin acupuncture needle into the skin, many traditional Chinese medicine practitioners believe the acupuncture point is stimulated, releasing the blocked energy.
In Western medicine, there are multiple hypotheses for the experienced effects of acupuncture. Some acupuncturists describe how acupuncture works in terms of biochemical pathways and nerve stimulation.
One hypothesis is that by stimulating nerves by putting needles in certain acupuncture points, the brain releases neural hormones such as endorphins that create feelings of euphoria and can reduce perceived pain.
Another hypothesis is that some acupuncture points decreases pro-inflammatory markers such as TNF and IL-1β. This decreases inflammation and reduces pain. One popular acupuncture point for this is below the knee (known as stomach 36). This point is frequently used not only for inflammation anywhere in the body but also for increasing energy and boosting the immune system.
What to Expect from an Acupuncture Appointment
When you first arrive at your acupuncture appointment, you can expect your acupuncturist to ask questions about your current condition as well as any medications you are taking. This helps them identify which acupuncture points may be at best use for your treatment and to identify any contraindications.
You will be placed in a comfortable sitting or lying position that allows you to rest while allowing your acupuncturist to access the necessary acupuncture points. In many cases, this can be done clothed. Some acupuncture points, such as your back, may require some clothing adjustments or use of a gown.
Your acupuncturist will then insert acupuncture needles into the predetermined acupuncture points. These needles are very fine and, in many cases, cannot be felt at all. In some cases, you may feel a pinch or a heavy sensation. This heaviness is thought to be the energy and blood coming to the needle.
The needles are left in for about 30 minutes then are removed and disposed of.
Finally, your acupuncture therapist will advise you on how to best maximize your effects from your acupuncture treatment and how to maintain continued healing.
FAQs About Acupuncture
Below are some of the most common questions asked about acupuncture. Do you have a question about acupuncture that we did not cover here? Reach out and one of our integrative, functional, holistic healthcare professionals will be happy to speak with you. Ask a Question
What does acupuncture actually do?
While there’s no definitive evidence for how and why people experience the effects of acupuncture that they experience, there are several hypotheses:
In ancient Chinese medicine, it’s believed that some conditions or diseases are caused by blocked energy (qi) in the body. Acupuncture is thought to help these blockages release to regain energy flow.In Western medicine, acupuncture is thought to trigger neurochemical reactions such as releasing endorphins into the body which can cause feelings of euphoria and increased pain tolerance. Some positive benefits may also be due to a decrease in inflammation markers.
For individuals undergoing acupuncture, the results will depend on what condition they are being seen for and which treatment and acupuncture points the acupuncturist chooses. Many effects of acupuncture include increased energy, improved sleep, temporarily decreased pain, increased muscle or joint mobility, improved digestion, relief from nausea or headaches, and more.
Can acupuncture be harmful?
While in general acupuncture is considered low risk, seeing an unlicensed or inexperienced acupuncturist has an increased risk of dangerous side effects. Injuries such as partially collapsed lungs, bacterial infection, or viral infection can occur from lack of experience or poor hygiene practices.
How long do the effects of acupuncture last?
How long the effects of your acupuncture treatment last depend on which condition you were being seen for and your treatment plan. In general, a single acupuncture treatment will have limited temporary relief of your symptoms, while a treatment plan with short appointments over several weeks will offer longer-lasting benefits.
What should I do before and after acupuncture?
Before acupuncture, it’s best to:
- Avoid caffeine. You should avoid caffeine for at least two hours before your treatment. This is because this stimulant can increase your heart rate and adrenaline, decreasing the relaxing benefits of your treatment.
- Avoid alcohol. Avoid alcohol leading up to your appointment as alcohol dulls your senses making you less likely to feel the full benefits from your acupuncture treatment.
- Eat mindfully. It’s wise not to go to an acupuncture appointment on an empty stomach as this may cause feelings of lightheadedness or depletion. However, you also don’t want to go when you’re too full, as this may cause discomfort.
- Wear loose clothing. It can also be helpful to wear loose clothing so the acupuncturist can more easily access acupuncture points.
After an acupuncture appointment:
- Take it easy after your appointment. Acupuncture is known for increasing energy, but to maintain the boost, it can help to allow your body some physical rest to help the positive effects stay in motion.
- Light exercise. Light exercise can help prevent your body from becoming sore after acupuncture and can help increase the positive effects you feel from the treatment. It’s best to keep this exercise light and easy such as walking or swimming.
- If you’re using acupuncture to alleviate sore muscles, heat can help to aid in the healing process.
- Stay hydrated. It’s important to stay hydrated after your acupuncture appointment as this helps flush toxins out of your body. It can also be helpful to avoid coffee and alcohol during this time.
Who shouldn’t get acupuncture?
Some people are at greater risk of complications during acupuncture. This includes people who have bleeding disorders as this increases the risk of bleeding or bruising from the needles. Pregnant individuals should also ask their health care provider before seeking acupuncture as some acupuncture is thought to stimulate labor. If seeking acupuncture that uses electronic pulses, individuals with pacemakers should first discuss with their cardiologist as this may interfere with the pacemaker’s operation.
Does acupuncture hurt?
Acupuncture needles are very thin. In most cases, the insertion of the needle is hardly felt by the individual. There may be some instances where the individual may experience a slight prick or pinching sensation.
Negative Side Effects of Acupuncture
Most people don’t experience negative side effects for properly-performed acupuncture. However, depending on the acupuncture points used and the general health condition of the patient, some individuals may experience some minor side effects from the treatment.
- In some cases, you may experience soreness at some points of needle insertion after your acupuncture treatment. This is most common in sensitive acupuncture points, in hands and feet, or if a significant trigger point was released. In most cases, your acupuncturist will warn you about potential soreness and best practices for helping alleviate soreness from acupuncture as quickly as possible—this usually includes staying hydrated and mobile after your appointment. In most cases, soreness dissipates within 24 hours.
- It’s most common to experience increased energy after an acupuncture appointment. However, in some cases individuals may experience depleted energy. This is especially common if an individual undergoes acupuncture on an empty stomach. However, fatigue immediately following your acupuncture appointment is no cause for concern. If your body feels fatigued, it’s important to listen to your body and take it easy for the remainder of the day. In most cases, patients will feel rejuvenated and energized by the next morning.
- Although uncommon, some patients may experience bruising at the insertion site after acupuncture. These bruises are rarely uncomfortable, with their biggest effect being purely aesthetic. It is unknown why some people bruise during acupuncture while others do not, but in general, bruising is no need for concern.
- Muscle Twitching. Some individuals may experience involuntary muscle twitching during or after acupuncture. This side effect may be a muscle that was needled during your acupuncture treatment or may be an unrelated muscle. In most cases, the twitching is brief and will subside. If it does not stop or if you experience muscle spasms, let your acupuncturist know. In most cases, they can help release the muscle to relieve the spasm before you leave.
- In rare cases an individual may experience lightheadedness during or after an acupuncture appointment. This is sometimes due to emotional or physical release and can be exacerbated by dehydration or receiving acupuncture while on an empty stomach. It’s important to stand up slowly after an acupuncture appointment as standing up too quickly can trigger lightheadedness. If you feel yourself becoming lightheaded, sit down and take some deep breaths.
Risks of Acupuncture
In general, acupuncture is considered low risk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates acupuncture needles the same way they do other medical equipment, ensuring the devices are made using high-quality manufacturing practices. Needles are single-use only to uphold high standards of sterility.
When accidents do occur, the most common are an accidental puncture of a lung, viral infections, or bacterial infections. In most cases, these conditions can be avoided with high sterility standards and use of a licensed, experienced acupuncturist.
There are also some individuals with increased risk of complications during acupuncture, including individuals with bleeding disorders who may experience bleeding or bruising, or people who may be pregnant as some acupuncture is thought to stimulate labor. Individuals with pacemakers should speak with their cardiologist before undergoing electroacupuncture in which an electric current is passed between needles.